Jet Li's Fearless

2007-06-04 15:54
What it’s about:

Around the turn of the last century an expert in Chinese martial arts (“wushu”) named Huo Yuanjia (played by Jet Li) became the undisputed champion of his province. The son of a famous fighter (Collin Chou), Huo was obsessed with bringing honour to his family’s reputation, an obsession that provoked him into a senseless fight that cost his family their lives. Devastated, Huo fled to the mountains and lived the simple life, mourning his loss and acquiring true wisdom. Eventually he realised that he needed return and teach his fellow fighters a new way of being. He founded the Jingwu Sports Federation, and began to oppose the colonialist powers that were denigrating China. Enraged, they challenged him to a famous match in which Huo Yuanjia faced the finest fighters from England, Spain, Belgium and Japan.

What we thought of it:

Fearless is a film with real ambition. It wants to be a historical epic about the life of one of China’s most famous martial artists, a kick-ass kung fu movie, and a patriotic ode to the Chinese people. Unfortunately it only succeeds in splitting its energies and diluting its few strong sequences with many weaker ones. If this is really Jet Li’s final martial arts film, as he has claimed, then his fans are in for a letdown.

It’s not that Fearless is badly made. On the contrary it shows just how technically adept the Chinese film industry are becoming, with excellent art direction and costume design, great sets (and settings), highly polished visuals - all trademarks of the kind of professionalism that has made Hollywood so successful. At least part of this ethic comes via Director Ronny Yu, who has the better part of a decade in Hollywood learning the art of sexing up a dumb script (Freddy vs. Jason for instance).

But, as Yu himself has often illustrated, polish and professionalism doesn’t necessarily produce great movies. Audiences either want to be immersed in a great story, or they want to be wowed by impressive action sequences – preferably both. But, to a large extent, Fearless delivers on neither of these.

The lack of brilliant kung fu sequences is particularly surprising considering the pedigree of everyone involved. Ronny Yu may not be Zhang Yimou or even John Woo, but he’s been making kung fu flicks since the ‘70s, including classics like The Bride with White Hair. As for fight choreography, you don’t get better than Yuen Wo-Ping (The Matrix, Kung Fu Hustle), and let’s not forget this is Jet Li we’re talking about.

And yet, apart from one or two flashes of inspiration (a frantic battle on a 50 foot high wooden deck for instance), there is little we haven’t seen done before, and better. The fights lack the fluidity of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the epic grandeur of Hero and the raw intensity of Unleashed. As a whole they are too stagy and staccato, with Yu and Wo-Ping resorting to slow-mo and computer manipulation far too often.

As for the story, it is strictly boilerplate stuff. Showing little concern for historical accuracy, the screenwriters have simply squeezed a real person’s life into a standard heroic mould and trimmed of the inconvenient bits. We’ve seen this story literally thousands of times before, and the filmmakers lack the talent to make us see why this version is worth spending our time on.

The weak story might not be so obvious if the acting was stronger, but it is uniformly average. Jet Li is particularly uninspiring, moving almost robotically between emotions and attitudes. The fact that he is giving up martial arts movies seems to indicate that he thinks of himself as a serious actor, but Fearless doesn’t bode well for the rest of his career.

Perversely the film’s most enjoyable and memorable sequences have nothing to do with either wushu or history. When Li’s character flees to the mountains, losing himself in the bucolic peace of a village of rice farmers, we get a taste of the simple beauty and existential calm that the Chinese countryside, and culture, is so famous for. While we luxuriate alongside Li, we begin to hope he doesn’t go back to that other movie, the one with all the pompous chest beating and predictable violence.

- Alistair Fairweather
Jet Li's "last movie" is half Kung Fu flick and half historical epic. The problem is that neither half is very compelling.

Don 2007/04/13 11:14 AM
Alistair Alistair you first said that the story was pretty good, then you decided that it wasn't. Make up your mind. I didn't think the story mattered to be honest and it was good enough for me.The fighting was amazing, I don't think anyone on the planet would have anything bad to say about it yet you once again found something to down.Instead of just doing your job, maybe you should try to enjoy the film instead of just criticize it, because then you might actually give an accurate review.
joey 2007/06/17 2:07 AM
fearless this movie is exquisite. the fighting is stunning and interesting, varied, thanks to many different fighting styles from different countries being included in the story. the acting may not be the movie's strength. no matter, the story is about portraying the life - and inner conflicts - of a great martial arts fighter. and so we get to see a different side to the kung fu protagonist Huo Yuanjia. there's a bit of history, some personal stuff, several magnificent sceneries and loads of good kung fu. i consider it to be Jet Li's finest movie. and if it truly is his last, what a magnificent high note to end on.
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